Long before iPods, MP3s, or even electricity, people recorded and listened to music and speech by all-mechanical, analog means. Thomas Edison’s first important invention after setting up shop in Menlo Park, N.J., was the practical phonograph. His 1877 design featured a sharp stylus that pressed into a tinfoil cylinder. By shouting into a horn as he turned a crank, Edison caused the vibrations of his voice to make a pattern of indentations in a corkscrew groove along the surface of the spinning cylinder. When the stylus retraced that up-and-down pattern, the vibrations reproduced the sound of his voice. Edison famously demonstrated the effect by reciting the nursery rhyme ”Mary Had a Little Lamb” and then playing it back.
It’s telling that he chose so frivolous a passage. Although the original intent of the invention was not for entertainment (Edison was working on a way to record telegraph messages), the first application for the phonograph was in a talking doll. Unfortunately the fragile bisque-headed dolls proved too expensive, unreliable, and difficult for children to operate (you had to turn a crank smoothly and continuously to make the doll talk). The doll was a commercial flop, and Edison moved on to other projects.
By the early 1900s others had made improvements on the phonograph by replacing the foil with wax, incising rather than impressing the grooves, and switching from individually recorded cylinders to discs that could easily be duplicated by stamping. Each of the incompatible formats had their fans. Some argued that the constant stylus speed across a cylinder together with the “hill and dale” modulation (grooves that wiggled up and down) of Edison cylinders reproduced sound better than disc format with sideways modulation, varying stylus speed, and tone arm tracking error. No matter — like the Betamax/VHS showdown, the technically inferior but more popular gramophone disc format prevailed.
Then, with the advent of radio and electronically amplified phonographs, wind-up mechanical sound players died out — until 40 years later. In 1952 Louis Marx & Co. created Robert the Robot, a boxy plastic robot that talked when you turned the crank in his back, just like Edison’s doll — including the poor sound quality and hard-to-regulate speed (makezine.com/go/robert). This toy has been recently reintroduced as a collector’s replica using the original tooling, but with modern electronic sound chips for better playback.
In 1960 Mattel introduced a new talking doll that was everything Edison’s doll wasn’t. Chatty Cathy was sturdy, great sounding, affordable, and most importantly, easy for a child to operate. Just pull the string and Cathy said one of 11 different phrases, like “Tell me a story!” or “Please take me with you!” Mattel gave her a soft vinyl head with rooted hair, and accessories like strollers and a wardrobe of themed outfits, all ”sold separately” of course. Thanks in part to her nationwide TV campaign (makezine.com/go/chatty), Chatty Cathy was a big success!
She even inspired an episode of The Twilight Zone, “Living Doll.” The voice of the similar but sinister Talky Tina doll (“My name is Talky Tina — and I don’t think I like you!”) was performed by June Foray, who also did the voice of the real Chatty Cathy doll, as well as those of many TV cartoon characters including Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Natasha, and the Grinch’s Cindy Lou Who.
What made it all work was the cleverly designed voice unit, invented by ex-Raytheon missile engineer Jack Ryan, Mattel’s in-house toy wizard. Instead of turning a crank, the child simply pulled out a string, which wound up a powerful metal spring. In the same motion, the string (ingeniously threaded right through a hole in the tone arm) automatically lifted and pulled the tone arm back to the beginning of the record.
The miniature record had concentric annuli. Unlike a single continuous groove (like on an LP), the disc had multiple grooves that were interleaved and spiraled around each other. They were arranged so that the multiple lead-in grooves of the tracks were distributed around the rim, like numerals on a clock face. When the tone arm dropped on the spinning record it would land at random on any one of the tracks. “You never know what she will say next!” touted Chatty Cathy commercials.
Unlike in the gramophone, the styrene speaker cone in this voice unit was fixed in one position. A tiny spring-loaded piston pressed the needle into the hill-and-dale modulated groove. It also acoustically coupled the speaker cone to the curved ridge on top of the moving T-shaped tone arm. The record was molded out of tough, slippery nylon to be both durable and smooth running. This design produced loud, clear sounds with great fidelity. The constant pressure of the piston kept the needle in the groove so the voice unit didn’t rely on gravity like a gramophone — it would work upside down, or at any angle, perfect for a toy.
To keep the record spinning at a smooth and steady speed, it was connected via a rubber belt and pulley to a die-cast zinc centrifugal regulator. Like a spinning figure skater, the arms of the regulator would move in and out in response to any variation in speed. Too slow and the spring-loaded arms snapped inward, speeding itself up. Too fast and the arms swung out, where their felted tips dragged against the housing, subtly and gently braking the speed.
Mattel continued to improve their voice unit by updating to a more elegant S-shaped negator spring, which provides constant force in a compact size (like a self-rewinding carpenter’s measuring tape). The powerful spring motor had extra torque, which was used to power additional mechanical gimmicks on various toys. The Mickey Mouse Chatter Chum moved his head up and down as he talked. Shrinkin’ Violet, a doll based on ABC TV’s “The Funny Company,” fluttered her eyelashes and moved her lips.
The same basic mechanical sound player was used in dozens and dozens of other toys: Barbie dolls, talking books and games, puppets, and lots more. Because these miniature sound makers reproduced recognizable voices and sounds, they were a natural for items that were based on well-known characters with famous catch phrases. Just pull the string to hear Robin Williams as Mork from Ork say “Nanoo, Nanoo,” Herschel Bernardi as Charlie the Tuna say “Hey, Stahkist, I gaht good taste!,” or Mel Blanc as Bugs Bunny say “What’s up, doc?” The list of character voice toys was endless: Casper the Ghost, Beany and Cecil, Doctor Doolittle, The Monkees, Herman Munster, Woody Woodpecker, Flip Wilson, and Fred Flintstone, to name a few.
The pull-my-string action was so iconic that it was used to trigger the Toy Story Talking Woody Doll, even though this toy’s sound player was entirely electronic.
The longest-lived pull-string product line was the Fisher-Price See ’n Say. A pointer attached to the record’s shaft allowed kids to select the sound track they wanted to hear. Just point and pull to hear nursery rhymes, alphabet, numbers, or animal sounds. “The cow says mmmMMOOooooo!”
Even after the 1970s, when all-electronic talking toys were introduced, these mechanical players offered an inexpensive way to reproduce natural voices and sound effects. One toy from 1982, Mattel’s Teach And Learn Computer (TLC), combined Victorian-era and Space Age technologies. A microprocessor was used to accurately drop the tone arm onto a spinning record, landing at the exact instant to play the desired single track out of 40 different lead-in grooves whirling by.
Mechanical sound players continue today in novelty applications. Go to makeprojects.com/v/29 to see some short videos of a Japanese, all-cardboard record player toy and thumbnail-activated talking strips.
In 2010, GGRP, a Canadian recording studio and production company, created an award-winning promotional piece featuring a cardboard record player that was powered by twirling a pencil (makezine.com/go/ggrp).
Coming full circle, you can find plastic reproduction kits of all-mechanical phonographs. Japanese kit maker Gakken updated Edison’s design to use plastic cups instead of tinfoil cylinders, and theirs is powered by a small electric motor instead of a hand crank. There’s also a Berliner Gramophone Kit disc cutter with a wind-up motor. Groovy, baby!